When I went to AU and worked for the paper, there were these horrible, horrible events called “The American Forums.” They were a point of celebration and pride for the School of Communication, because they often got picked up by C-SPAN2 or C-SPAN radio, and they usually had at least one “name” person per panel. And the topics were usually good — things combining media and politics and ethics, meant to be topical and interesting. The panels, however, were never, ever, ever, ever interesting. This was due to a combination of factors, the main being: egotistical panelists interested only in their own opinions; moderation by one or another “star” faculty member in SOC with a similar problem; an audience mixed between those required to be there for class (often by the professor leading the panel) and the neighborhood crazies who showed up for the questions part of the exercise. The questions part was always, always excruciating.
I have avoided many panel discussions since then for precisely these reasons. But at KU, I have mostly found things to be, well, better. The Dole Institute has put on some splendid talks, and has instituted a rule of “ask a question, don’t make a statement” for the discussion sections that is a wonderful invention. Discussions actually occur. Panelists talk and trade ideas with the audience and with each other. I went to a two-day conference on the war in Iraq at the Institute about two years ago, and it was everything that a conference should — and certainly could — be: well-planned, well-organized, and well-thought out.
The panel discussion yesterday, with the promising title “Respecting Religion/Exercising Freedom of the Press: Cultural Clashes on an International Stage,” was everything that a panel talk should NOT be: largely unmoderated, haphazardly organized, and with no clear springing-off point for the speakers or the audience. Even the title is, upon review, a problem: the panel was meant to discuss the recent Mohammed cartoons and the violent protests their publication has caused, but you can’t really tell that from the name, can you? Three of the five panelists stood up and said, “I’m not sure why they asked me to be here, but…” before their initial presentations. Oh, death! Death of my interest, right there! I can give a summary, in bullets:
- Ted Frederickson, professor of journalism, spoke first and said basically, expression over all! People should never be punished for publishing anything, and the men who have been jailed and may be executed in Pakistan should be our first concern.
- Mike Hoeflich, professor of law, stood up next and said, people are dying, and that should be our concern before rights. If it would take only an apology from the Danish government to stop this, that’s what should happen.
- Tim Miller, chair of religious studies, put up old offensive cartoons on an overhead projector — mostly those mocking Jewish and Catholic people — to show that this wasn’t a new thing.
- The Lawrence Journal-World’s managing editor stood up and said We didn’t publish them and we didn’t publish these other offensive things and we wouldn’t ever because people don’t need to be offended when they’re reading their news. Though we did print stories about it all.
- Moussa Elbayoumy, director of the Islamic Center in Lawrence and, apparently, representative of the every Muslim in the entire world to most of the attendees, stood up and said we need to understand the context of all of this (thank you!) and that the riots didn’t just happen over night, that they’ve happened five months after the initial publication because peaceful protest, boycots, and attempts to seek apologies and prosecution (under Danish law, the cartoons may have been illegal) failed.
- And then things just dissolved into stupidity, AKA, Question Time. Questions were:
- Something about Iraq.
- Long statement about immigration.
- Long statement about how the Indian Muslim population has been ignored — this was actually a good question to pose to the panel, oh, if only it had been in question form.
- Extremely long and painful statement about being a secularist and “raging atheist” in a world of religion, asking why can’t we get to the root of this and begin to discuss the right and wrong points of religion? Yes, why not? Wouldn’t these walls be pretty with bits of my exploded head upon them? SIT THE FUCK DOWN.
- Panel begins to argue amongst themselves, with Journalist making statements about how Lawyer doesn’t see importance of rights, and Muslim shouldn’t be calling for the prosecution of anyone, and Lawyer bringing up the holocaust again and interrupting Muslim to do this by saying, “It doesn’t seem fair that you’re being asked to speak for all Muslims…” and then proceeding, I guess, to make himself an Honorary Speaker for All Muslims. Etc. etc.
Basically, what I have taken away from this is a need for ORDER to be imposed upon the world; and since that’s impossible, if we could just agree to a few rules for Formal Panel Discussions, then I would be most grateful.
Grand Rules For Public Panels and Speeches
- The Presentation must never be considered personal therapy. Deny all instincts to hold forth on a particular topic by providing a “personal anecdote” that is only tangentially related to the topic. Examples:
- Do NOT use an anecdote if you must preface it with, “I’m not sure this really applies” or “See if you can make the connection” or “Let me just say that back when/in my family/a long while ago.”
- DO use an anecdote if you know personally and well someone whose name is mentioned in the title of the discussion, if you have recently (within last two years) been to the country being discussed or semi-recently (last ten years) served on in any of its relevant government branches.
- The Presentation should remain on topic. If invited to speak about Pineapple Growing in the MidWest, do not plan to spend any time discussing Orange Juicing in the South. If a question comes up about Orange Juicing, you may answer it, but only briefly, and are probably better off skipping it with a pre-prepped phrase like, “Yes, that’s a fascinating topic, I agree, but I think for today we’ll just focus on pineapples.”
- Avoid too much use of phrases such as, “It seems to me,” “I think,” “My opinion is.” Obviously, you think these things. Obviously, your opinion is limited to you.
- If asked to stand up for/represent/speak for an entire population, DECLINE. This is the time to break out the “In my opinion” lines. Not doing so risks both your own credibility as a speaker (“How can you presume to know all pineapple growers?”) and the collective reputation of the group at large (“I was led to believe that ALL pineapple growers were coke users!”).
- Try to ascertain why you have been asked to speak and on what topic/ for what reason the other speakers/panelists have been asked to attend. Avoid complete overlap, but do try to dovetail your presentations. [Ex: “Now, Carl’s going to give you the news on Orange Growing, so I won’t go into it…”]
- If you do disagree with other panelists, consider bringing it up during the inevitable Questions lull. Do NOT interrupt him or her while he or she is speaking. Address your questions, just as the audience would, to the moderator.
- Keep things moving. Do not huff if not given a chance to respond to every single question. Do not argue points of ethics or honor with other panelists or audience members. Do not say anything that would have, in earlier times, been a de facto challenge to duel.
- If you are the moderator: Give strict rules on the Question vs. Statement policy for the audience. Know the specialties of the panelists and use them. Learn to see the signals of who is eager (and who is overeager) to answer certain arguments. Learn to HALT circular discussion.
So, apparently I want Boot Camp for Panelists. But is that wrong? Couldn’t it be so much more informative if we all, well, I don’t want us all to get along, but at least to respect each others’ rights to speak (if a panelist) and rights to listen to the panel they came to see and not to your theories on War and Religion and Why Things Are So Weird (if an audience member)? Oh yes, I think so.